As near as I can tell, and if I read the Fathers rightly, the requisites for prayer are humility and trust. If pride, arrogance, self-vaunting, or manipulation enter into prayer, then our prayers are empty, though God may still condescend, loving Father as he is, to respond to the better of our prayers, even when we ask for the worse. Prayer is the central activity of the Christian, the praxis of our every moment, and because it is so central, and because we are fallen and sinful, our passions infiltrate our prayers.
It is such a subtle distinction for our sinful hearts to pass from confidence in God to manipulation. When do repeated instances of the Jesus Prayer through our day actualize the perserverance in prayer to which Jesus calls us, and when the vain babbling of pagans seeking to manipulate our God to give us what we want? Where is that line that divides our hearts between the expression of our pain and sorrow and that of myopia and self-pity? When do our intercessions for our brother and sister in Christ pass from love of neighbor to the fulfillment of our own narcissistic desires, wishing them peace and blessing not for their sakes but for ours? When does the desire for justice pass into that of revenge?
These are distinctions that cannot be mapped by the one praying, or, at least, not by such of us that read too much and pray too little. Such as we are far too self-deceived to be reliable guides of our own spiritual lives. This is why God gives us our fathers in the faith, our priests, godparents, bishops, and the monks and nuns. This is why we must daily consume the Scriptures. And this is why we can take great comfort in the Spirit’s intercession for us when we do not know how and for what we ought to pray (and even when we do).
The divine irony is that it is just in this practice of prayer, by the divine operation of the Spirit, that we are purified of our passions, and our prayers are made more pure. As St. Isaac the Syrian writes (and I greatly paraphrase), if we wait until we are pure to begin our prayer, we will never pray. We should simply pray, aware always of our sins and our passionate weaknesses and temptations. We should know that if we ask for a fish, God will not give us a snake, and, in his mercy, even if we ask for a snake, he may well give us the fish for our salvation.
And so we pray, seeking humility, exercising trust. Watchful, with the help of Scriptures and godly counsel, against the passions which mar and distort our prayers. Indeed, recognizing the sins which infuse our prayers, we are almost inevitably cast down in humility. After all, what can we put forward which would persuade God to hear our prayer? Our own “holiness”? No, all we have is the knowledge that he loves us and desires personal union with us. What other knowledge, then, do we need? Recognizing his great condescension, and knowing that love, not our own “righteousness,” is his motive for hearing us, we are emboldened in faith, in trust, to lay all our cares before him. Such trust, founded on such humility, leads us deeper into the union with God in Christ which purifies us. And our prayers.
I speak apodicticly here, but what do I truly know of these things? May the Lord make firm the true and destroy the false.
I would appreciate your prayers for me and mine.